UVALDE, Texas – From the first minutes after a gunman opened fire, officers descended upon Rob Elementary School. Local police of the city of Uvalde. County Sheriff’s Representative. Agent from the Federal Border Patrol.
But in what would be the deadliest school shooting since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School a decade ago, none of a growing number of agencies had control over the scores of officers at the scene on Tuesday.
It fell to the head of a small police department created only four years earlier to help provide security at Uvalde’s eight schools. Its chief, Pedro Arredondo, ordered the assembled officers to stop storming two adjacent classrooms, where the gunman had already fired more than 100 rounds at the walls, the doors and the frightened fourth-grader locked with him. It was done, said the state police.
As Uvalde rolled into a holiday weekend of somber celebrations and free public barbecues, questions were raised over the role of Chief Arredondo, the police, and whether 21 lives could have been saved.
Hundreds of the bereaved met Saturday evening during a vigil in the parking lot behind Sacred Heart Catholic Church and the pastor urged them not to remain angry. Emotions will again intensify with President Biden’s scheduled visit on Sunday.
The extent to which some law enforcement officers disagreed with the decision to withdraw to the scene became more apparent on Saturday, as more became known about their frustrations in the long chaos of Tuesday’s shooting.
Specially trained agents of the Border Patrol, who had arrived more than 40 minutes after the shooting began, shouted for permission to go inside and confront the gunman. “What is your problem?” According to an official briefed on the response, he asked.
Inside the classrooms, children whose classmates lay dead around them silently called 911 over and over, several times begging dispatchers to send the police to rescue them.
Roland Gutierrez, who represents the area in the state Senate, said the family of one of the children killed told him that their daughter had suffered a single bullet in the back and had died. “It is possible that he could have been saved if he had done his job,” Mr Gutierrez said.
Eventually the police officers gathered outside obtained permission to enter the classroom. A team of tactical officers from the Border Patrol and local police agencies broke down the door and killed the 18-year-old gunman, Salvador Ramos, after he had killed 19 children and two teachers.
The decision to wait was visible to those agents at the time, and later to many police experts, in keeping with the two-decade-long practices in departments across the country since the fatal shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. appeared as a step. ,
“Columbine’s change is not necessarily accepted by agencies across the country, and that’s what you see in this situation,” said Chuck Wexler, head of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank. “There are still departments in this country where there is ambiguity about this policy.”
Others, including some who have provided active shooter training, have advised that rushing may not always be the best approach. “When the story is finally told, he did exactly what he was trained for and based on practical experience in the fog of war,” said John-Michael Keys, whose group is active for police officers and school districts in Texas. The shooter conducts training. Chief of Arredondo.
Two officers from the Uvalde Police Department were shot through closed doors in the classroom in the first minutes of the attack, and fell back into the hallway with grazed wounds.
Officers were told, under the direction of Chief Arredondo, that the situation had developed with an active shooter – who would ask to immediately attack the gunman even before the other children were rescued – with a barricaded subject, who appeared to have a slow approach. Will take a call, the officials said.
According to the state’s police director, Steven McCraw, this appears to be a miscalculation: gunshots can be heard sporadically inside rooms, including incessant 911 calls by children.
Part of the investigation into the shooting and police response included whether Chief Arredondo was aware of the 911 calls, suggesting a possible breakdown in communications during the chaotic and fatal incident, an official briefed on the investigation said. , which is being led by the Texas Rangers.
Investigators were also investigating whether an attempt was made during the standoff to divert command of the incident from Main Arredondo.
Gil Kerlikowski, a former Seattle police chief who later served as the chief of US Customs and Border Protection, said he was surprised to hear that the head of the school district police force, which has only six officers, was shot. During the incident was the Commander. ,
While the school grounds may be under the district’s jurisdiction, Mr Kerlikovske said, he would have expected the district to immediately relinquish control to the city’s police department, which would have more experience with major incidents. He said city police could then hand over control to an agency like the Texas Department of Public Safety once it is established on the scene.
But, Mr Kerlikovske said, he could also see a situation where a larger agency might need to come in and pressure the initial commander to give up control.
Brandon Judd, head of the Border Patrol Council, the agents’ union, said that in no case would Border Patrol agents have sought to take charge themselves.
“Every single training that is given, you have an incident commander, and that incident commander has all the decision-making authority,” Mr. Judd said on Saturday. They are trained to do the same, he said. And when agents arrive long after the position has started, he said, it’s even more important that they follow the chain of command.
The official familiar with the federal agency’s response said Border Patrol agents who arrived at the chaotic scene on Tuesday were surprised by the absence of specially equipped and trained officers from the local police department who were able to raid classrooms.
According to the department’s annual report, the Uvalde Police Department, which has employed about 40 sworn officers in recent years, uses some of its members as a sort of SWAT team, often for drug seizures. It was not clear why a border patrol, a 40-minute drive away, was asked to lead the attack.
The failure to respond probably stemmed from decisions made by a small police department, state senator Mr Gutierrez said.
“How can you blame all this on the police chief of a school district with six cops?” Mr Gutierrez said. “Everyone here failed.”
On Tuesday, a gunman’s first 911 call in the open came not from the school but from a nearby home. The gunman, who lived with his grandmother a short distance away, had shot him in the face—one bullet hit near his right eye—and fled toward the school with his weapons, two AR-15-style rifles. Went.
Maria and Gilberto Gallegos, two retired neighbors who were outside at the time, heard two gunshots coming directly across the street. Suddenly, the gunman came out the front door with a backpack and a duffel bag and jumped into his grandmother’s pickup truck.
“He didn’t know how to drive,” said the couple’s son, Gilbert Gallegos, who relayed his account. “He was just turning around, pushing on the gas. Finally, he passes out, and the tires are throwing pebbles all around.”
At that time, he said, the gunman’s grandmother, Celia Martínez Gonzales, walked out of her home, her gait steady but her face covered in blood.
“She tells my parents in Spanish, ‘Look what happened,'” Gilbert Gallegos said. Ms. Gallegos called 911 – first at 11:33 a.m. and then two minutes later. Police arrived soon after, followed by an ambulance.
Even before he arrived, he said, his parents could hear gunshots in the area of Robb Elementary School.
Chief Arredondo did not respond to multiple requests for comment on his department’s response to the shooting. Nor did the head of the Uvalde Police Department, Daniel Rodriguez, or several other members of the department and school district leadership.
In many cities across the country, including New York, city police oversee officers who patrol schools; School districts throughout Texas have dedicated police departments that operate independently.
The police department of the Uvalde Consolidated School District was created just four years ago. Before that, the city’s police department provided school officials, said Mickey Gerdes, who served as chairman of the board at the time. But the district and department could not overcome discussions about scheduling conflicts and costs.
Mr Gerdes said part of the decision to switch was in response to a rise in school shootings and a desire to increase safety in schools. (The school police officer assigned to Rob Elementary was not on campus when Tuesday’s attack began.)
Chief Arredondo, a veteran of several departments who won the city council election two weeks before the shooting, Started leading the department in early 2020, a month before the pandemic hit.
He had served in the Uvalde Police Department and as a top officer for the Sheriff’s Department in Webb County on the border. Before returning to Uvalde, Chief Arredondo headed a school district police department in the border town of Laredo, where he had a reputation for being “a tough guy in law enforcement, no-nonsense” from his time in the county sheriff’s office, Sergio Mora. Said , a political advisor in Laredo.
During his two years as Chief Arredondo, he expanded the department’s smaller ranks by adding two officers the previous year.
Also during those two years, the school district held at least two trainings on how to deal with a gunman shooting at a school.
Mr. Gerdes, a former school board president, said he has known Chief Arredondo for more than two decades. He said he fears the criticism directed at Tuesday’s handling of the shooting reflects the desire of a scapegoat. “He’s a good man,” said Mr. Gerdes. “He’s a decent man.”
But the revelations about how long the police officers took to enter the classroom sparked anger in Uvalde and demanded an explanation.
Jay Martin, 48, who lives near the school, said he ran to the scene with a friend after hearing gunshots for the first time.
His own daughter, now 12, was once a student of Eva Miralles, one of the teachers killed, he said Saturday as he stood at the victims’ memorial in a central square.
“Why did he take so long? It’s part of being a police officer, putting his life on the line for someone else,” he said.
Now, he said, “there are a lot of furious people.”
Francis Robles, Serge F. Kowalski And karen zaraiki Contributed to reporting. Jack Baig Contributed to research.